ARC Review: The Backstagers and the Theater of the Ancients by Andy Mientus
- Genre: Middle grade fantasy
- Publisher: Amulet Books
- Publication Date: March 19, 2019
After saving the day and stopping the ghost from taking over their theater, things are quiet for the Backstagers of the St. Genesius School Drama Club. Too quiet. But when that quiet is filled by a mysterious voice that haunts the Backstagers day and night, they set off on a globetrotting adventure to discover the ancient secrets of the legendary artifacts of the theater. Can they solve the mystery in time to open their production of the rock musical Tammy? Each Backstager brings unique skills to the team: Mischievous Sasha is impossibly positive; no-nonsense Aziz makes sure everything runs smoothly; whiz-kid Beckett is a perfectionist through and through; flirtatious Hunter knows the backstage better than anyone; and sweet Jory can think his way through any problem. Effortlessly inclusive and full of adventure, The Backstagers and the Theater of the Ancients is sure to have readers calling, “Encore!”
Disclaimer: I received an eARC from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Thanks to Netgalley!
I read and reviewed the first Backstagers book last year and I’ve been looking forward to the sequels, and here we are! These books, written by Broadway actor Andy Mientus, are actually a continuation from a comics series that I haven’t read yet. Because of this, it took me a little bit to become accustomed to the fantasy world and alternate reality, and while the second book contains enough background information it can be read on its own, I still found it easier to jump into. I also think the worldbuilding is also more frontloaded in this one by way of catching readers up.
This book is explicitly inspired by Andy’s experience in the Deaf West production of Spring Awakening (apparently the final copy is dedicated to that) and it propels the plot of the whole series in a very interesting and important direction. This book introduces Adrienne (who apparently does appear in the comics), a Deaf girl who uses both hearing aids and ASL. Bailey, the girl always cast as the lead, is cast in Tammy (the rock musical about a Deaf girl who becomes a Skee-Ball star…sound familiar? I also love how Andy wrote about the representation issues he noticed in Tommy when he was literally playing the lead role) as the lead role, but through Adrienne the group realizes that hearing actors playing deaf often botch ASL and there are so few opportunities for Deaf actors. And Adrienne has always wanted to be on stage…she just has never had the opportunity, and as she’s Deaf her singing isn’t comparable to hearing actors. So they construct a way for her to play Tammy while Bailey sings for her and provides cues on stage, very much like Deaf West’s Spring Awakening, and this impacts other technical elements as well.
But not everyone is thrilled, and I won’t spoil it, but this leads to a more specific introduction to the villains of the whole series and their motivations…of making theater pure again, less inclusive and not embracing of new technology. (Totally fictional, right?)
Meanwhile, Jory starts suffering from voices in his head–anxiety that leads to panic attacks and depression. His newfound fame on social media (“Instasnap”) makes it worse. He sets off on his own journey, and this makes his relationship with Hunter, the rest of the Backstagers, and also impinges his work with Tammy as costume designer. He can’t seem to believe his designs are good anymore, and he struggles to get out of bed. All of this was absolutely relatable, and I’m just SO HAPPY this is included in a middle grade book. There is a particular moment where therapy is discussed and THAT is so important. One of the Backstagers thinks that the voice might be something fantastical like so much of what they encounter, but no…it’s just a very real problem we all in the real world might face.
Some other things I liked: references to Greek theater, students enthusiastically learning ASL with a teacher named Mrs. Matlin, Jory and Hunter dealing with real relationship issues any couple could have in a way appropriate for ten year olds (we often don’t see much of this with queer relationships, and especially not for this age range), the Muse spirit character described with they/them pronouns, a reference to the musical Companions about how awful marriage is, the Adrienne and Bailey friendship, Aziz learning ASL for Adrienne, inclusion of specific ASL signs in the text and illustrations, the witch kid from the first book who still cracks me up…basically, I LOVED THIS BOOK. Even more than the first one, which I did really enjoy!! Now I need to find a finished copy and see the finished illustrations from Ryan Sygh…